Episode #17: "Unconscious Bias Hurts Your Sales Team," with Julie Sokley

Hosts: Kevin Micalizzi & Lynne Zaledonis

Unconscious bias is likely impacting your sales. Research shows that diverse sales teams do better. Being aware of your unconscious bias will help you build stronger teams. Join Julie Sokley, VP of Global Sales Operations at Autodesk, as she shares her thoughts on boosting performance by counteracting bias.  

For more on successfully building out your sales team, check out The Top 10 Sales Interview Questions for Assessing Emotional Intelligence.


Episode Transcript

Kevin Micalizzi: Thank you for joining the Quotable Podcast. Today, we’ll be discussing unconscious bias with Julie Sokley, VP Global Sales Operations at Autodesk. Welcome, Julie.


Julie Sokley: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here today.


Micalizzi: So Julie, for people who aren’t familiar with you and the work you’re doing at Autodesk, would you share a little bit about your background?


Sokley: Yeah. I’d be happy to. So I have been at Autodesk for three years now. I moved from Texas out to California to lead their global sales operations. And I can’t think of a better company or a place I’d rather be.

For people that don’t know too much about Autodesk, we’re actually all about the future of making things. So if you think about things in your own world like the Shanghai Tower, which is the tallest skyscraper, that was done using our software.

We’re very heavily involved with the automakers and some of the new high-performance sports cars like the Tesla’s. Any major animated film you kids have watched like 30 times like Big Hero 6 or Avatar are done with our software. So we really just try to enable people to plan and build new ways of thinking about things in the future.


Micalizzi: I love it. Before we jump into the questions, I’m Kevin Micalizzi, Product Marketing Manager at Salesforce and Executive Producer of the Quotable Podcast. I’m filling in for Tim Clarke. And I’m joined today by our guest host, Lynne Zaledonis. Lynne is a VP of Product Marketing at Salesforce. Welcome, Lynne.


Lynne Zaledonis: Great. Thanks a lot, Kevin. I look forward to learning from Julie today.


Micalizzi: Excellent. So Julie, let’s dive into this. You know, I know in the intro I mentioned that we’re going to be talking about unconscious bias. Why is this topic important to you?


Sokley: For me, it’s always been important. I think I realized even partway through my career that I was a woman in a very male-dominated workforce. And to be honest, it never stopped me.

But what I looked at when I have grown through my career is the fact that I always did have very diverse teams. And so I think, if anything for me, my unconscious bias was to try harder to get different types of people on my team.

So I think the unconscious bias can be different things for different people. And I think, in technology, we do have a fairly significant issue with some of those biases and diversity and moving forward in the tech field.


Zaledonis:  Julie, can you talk a little bit about what the issues are?


Sokley: Yeah. So I think, for me, when I have grown through my career, when you’re an independent contributor — and you mentioned you were in sales early in your career. I was as well. About a third of my career has been in the sales organization and then supporting sales through that.

And I think people unconsciously go towards — especially in sales — people talk about their gut feel. And I think a lot of times people kind of go towards that gut feel.

And a lot of times, what that ends up being is people exactly like you. And I think that is a hard thing for people to break if they’re not made aware of what they need to do proactively to be conscious of that type of activity.


Zaledonis: So if I hear you right, you’re talking about the unconscious bias we have because we’re attracted to people who are like us. That’s very common, right, the way we pick friends.


Sokley: That’s right.


Zaledonis: Are you talking about that in terms of our recruitment and our hiring? Or is that sort of in the way we sell and buy?


Sokley: I think it’s both. And that’s a really good question because I think, sometimes, people think it’s just the team within their own organization. But it’s actually something I test for in new candidates coming into the organization.

So I try to understand what their unconscious bias is. It’s the same thing for customers. If you understand what their unconscious bias is, it makes you more effective in selling alongside them.

So I think it’s something that doesn’t just pertain to yourself or your team. But it’s understanding what other people’s unconscious biases are as well.


Micalizzi: Having a better understanding and awareness of your unconscious bias definitely impacts how you do the recruitment. I mean, you were just talking about how you try and screen for unconscious bias.

But how does being aware of it and focusing on it impact your recruitment marketing, like how you do your job descriptions, everything around recruiting the right candidates?


Sokley: Yeah. That’s a really good question. And it’s something, when I came here to Autodesk three years ago, I really put on the forefront of one of my goals for my global sales operations team.

We’re about 250 strong. And we’re very globally diverse. But I wouldn’t say we were completely diverse. So when I talked about that with my leadership team, one of the first things we had to do was get educated and really understand all of our biases and how we can maybe help each other.

So one of the things, when we do recruiting here in my own organization and also in the sales organization as well, is we make a concerted effort to have a diverse interview panel. And by that, it could mean not even necessarily people that are going to work with that particular candidate.

But we ensure we’ve got a diverse panel of interviewees when we bring in a candidate. So it really allows everybody who is on the panel to really think about that as they’re interviewing and also give us chances to uncover strengths in those candidates that maybe one person might not pick up on but another person might.

So we do that very consciously here. We also do some things, for example, in our IT organization where we do blind resumes. So they don’t have a name on them. It’s strictly the experience.

And that’s been very enlightening for that organization because they’re looking at candidates based on their skills and experience and not having any kind of preconceived bias by maybe reading into the name or that kind of thing.

So those have been a couple things that we’ve done in the hiring process. The other thing that I do — and I just do it actively — is, when we do bring candidates into our organization, is we do spend some time on the value of what that person can bring to the table for that team.

So if our focus is to have a diverse team, then you have to say, what is that thing or benefit that that person can also bring to your team, which would best enable them to be able to perform more efficiently?

I’m not a big fan of quotas. You know, there’s a lot of talk out there on companies, you know, driving quotas. And there’s some pretty big companies right now that are putting some pretty firm action in there on quotas.

I’m not a huge fan of it. And I might be a little spoiled because I think my team has some of the highest diversity in our company. But I do think that that is a forced ratio to some extent.

I look at what that could mean and where people even coming in — let’s say it’s a female. And they were brought in under a forced ratio. What does the rest of the team perceive about her and/or even herself if she thinks she came in because she was part of a forced quota?

So I’m a big fan of bringing the right people in for the right roles and the people that can add the most to our team. But I’m not a big fan of dragging them in because it’s a number that we have to hit.


Zaledonis: Yeah. Got it. I love those tactics that you’re trying — having a diverse panel to make sure you’re asking the right questions. It sounds like you’ve seen some benefits to the blind resumes.

What’s the impact that you’ve seen on hiring by implementing these processes? Has it been working for you? Are you finding that you have a more diverse workforce?


Sokley: Yeah. We have. But I’ll tell you it’s harder work. So you know, your recruiters — one thing I require in my team and then a lot of other teams are adopting here at Autodesk is the candidates they bring to a job rec, both internal and external, must have a diverse background.

And so even the team that we have — that we interview for a particular role are very diverse. And that is something that takes a lot harder work for sometimes your recruiters because they do have to go through a lot more people to get that diversity even in the interview panel stage.

So it’s a little bit more work. And you guys probably see this too. I kind of say that the tech pool is a little bit like a 250-person blender. And a lot of salespeople just kind of move around team to team. Or if you’re, say, a new sales leader and you get a team, your first, you know, reaction if you have an option rec and an open territory is to go to a known commodity.

And you’re much more likely to maybe go to people you’ve worked with in the past. And you know, to be honest, a lot of those people are probably exactly like you.

So I think people just have to be conscious to pushing harder to think differently about the team members that they could have on their team. Another thing I’ve seen in our sales organization that I think is a little bit harder is the fact that, when you bring people in, your existing team also has an unconscious bias of how they perform together as a team.

So that new person is instantly thought of as a little bit different. And I think that’s where a leader really has to step in and encourage the team to think a little bit differently with every new hire you bring into the team.

And I think that slowly changes the dynamics of a team. It doesn’t happen overnight just because people say, I have unconscious biases. It still has to be a team performance. And you have to really try to manage that with every new member you bring into a team.


Micalizzi: Julie, I know, earlier in my career when I was hiring, I used to use a behavioral interview approach. And I used to structure the questions and share them across all my interviewers to try and ensure that I got consistency in how they were looking at each candidate.

Do you find that the diverse panels and the blind resumes give you sufficient coverage? Or do you end up having to structure the interviews more than you would have if you weren’t focused on the unconscious bias?


Sokley: You know, I don’t think we’ve gotten too much more structured. We do do behavioral interviewing. That is an important part of the structure here at Autodesk. And I think that uncovers sometimes as much as we can.

Sometimes for more senior leaders coming in the organization, we do send them out for face-to-face testing, if you will, for some of those criteria. We use Personnel Decisions, PDI, Korn/Ferry type applications for that.

So we can see what they’re like in a real-life scenario. And those scenarios that we created with Korn/Ferry are very diverse. So just by nature of that, we’ve kind of tried to drive that through the interview process and making sure we get people in that do have that diversity.

But to your point, Kevin, I think it’s ongoing journey. I think it’s one of those things, if left to its own devices, people will fall back into who they know and what they’re comfortable with. So I think it’s something you have to continue to really drive forward.


Zaledonis: I’d like to focus this lack of unconscious bias a little bit on the sales teams here for a minute because that’s the majority of our listeners. How have you found that these programs work to make sure that you’re not only recruiting a diverse sales team but maintaining diversity within your sales organization?


Sokley: That’s a really good one. And it is just, in effect, you have to educate people. I think a lot of it is spending time and educating our sales leaders. And we are doing that actively right now.

We only recently got our own Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Danny Guillory, who is really trying to create programs proactively for our leadership in not only bringing awareness but basically training them on how to be better leaders in high-performing teams.

So it’s not so much a lecture of we don’t have the right ratios at Autodesk. It’s here’s tools that your team can use to encourage that high performance in your team without hammering them kind of on the diversity thing.

We do it a little bit more, shall we say, subtle. And an example of that that we’re doing with our sales leadership and our sales teams right now is we created a program a couple years ago called leadership development program that specifically focuses on high-performing, diverse work teams.

And what I do — I work for the head of worldwide sales. And my peers, who lead all the sales organizations across the world, we hand select a group of 30 high performers throughout the worldwide sales organization with a specific focus on creating a diverse team.

We bring them through a series of face-to-face group sessions as well as meetings with, you know, Steve [Staff] and all of us, that focuses — we give them like a business challenge.

Each group breaks up into smaller groups. And they spend a lot of time storming and forming, which is really core to highly engaged teams. We don’t so much care what the output of the business challenge itself as we do of how they performed as a team.

So it gets them used to and acknowledging what some of the challenges are quite honestly but also some of the benefits of working with a team like that.

And I think that’s been a very powerful thing for us because not all the sales leaders have gone through it — sales managers have gone through it. But a lot of their people have. So it gives us a nice cross-pollination between the leadership and the individual contributors and some of the team leaders on how to do that and think about it differently.

So it’s a little bit of a grassroots program. But it came from the top down. So people are very high on it. It’s considered a huge, you know, benefit and acknowledgement if you’re selected for the program.

So like I said, it’s only 30 people. We do one a year. Our total team is 2,100. So it’s not very many people that get selected for that program. And the feedback from it is really off the charts. And the thing they most enjoy is that opportunity to work together as a team.  


Zaledonis: I love that. And I love the fact that we’re having a conversation where we’re both saying, well, we finally have a Chief Diversity Officer. That wasn’t on people’s radars years ago. But we’re both lucky to work for companies that value diversity.

I’ve served in a sales organization. You lead a global sales organization. It’s all about the number at the end of the day. Right. So how have you found that this has made a difference in your sales organization?


Sokley: Well, I can give it to you two ways. So for us, what we have found is people solve problems more effectively when they have different points of view. If everybody has the same way and the same approach to solving a problem, they can’t move as fast.

So one of the things that I believe — and I really do truly believe this — is that, if you have a highly diverse team who thinks of problems being solved differently, you get to a resolution much faster.

So for example, when we go through and review a deal — and, you know, of course, it runs through Salesforce and our Altify platform. But the team that typically looks at that deal is a very globally diverse team because we have a lot of hands in those big deals.

And ultimately, the resolutions that come out of that are far better than, you know, a rep and his manager who might be the same trying to figure out how to go at that deal.

And so I think what we’ve found is, even if we look at the contributions to the growth of our deals since we expanded the way we handle our dealmaker plans and our — we call it Black Hat coaching — is by bringing in a global team to really sit in on those deals and figure out how to solve them.

It’s been really effective. And it’s interesting because, you know, you give salespeople a lot of stuff to do. And you know, they really struggle sometimes.

And we rolled out this program called Black Hat Coaching. And I think, at the beginning, they thought of it as one more checkbox they had to do to get a deal. And instead, it’s had the opposite effect because, when they realize they can get lots of different points of view on a deal, they’re so much more effective.

And they’ve seen the growth in that. And what I’m finding now is — you know, we just closed a large deal yesterday. And I reviewed it. I run our deal review board. It had had three Black Hat sessions on it.

And you know, the team was just in a much better place because of it. So I think the proof is in how your teams perform better. So are their deals growing as a result? Do they want to have team-based think on it instead of, you know, figuring it out on their own?

Are they seeing that value? You know, are they able to close deals quicker? And what we’re seeing in kind of that approach is that that answer is yes.


Micalizzi: Have you been able to quantify the impact of these programs? I’m thinking, for listeners who want to bring about changes in their own organizations, you know, we’re a very numbers-driven culture in many ways. I’m thinking of us giving them a little bit of ammo or incentive in terms of making the case for their own organizations.


Sokley: You know, I know that’s very near the top of Danny’s list in being able to quantify that. I know McKinsey study, I think, for them, they said, for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity, senior executive teams really, really improved their productivity.

And you know, most importantly, it raises the billings and the revenue of a company. And they have been able to measure that in their study. I know that there’s some new studies coming out I think in the next six to eight months that are going to quantify that more.

I know, if I just look at Autodesk, I wouldn’t say we’re the best at diversity yet. But we’re certainly not the worst. And we’re better than a lot of the technology companies. And our CEO has said that’s not good enough.

He wants to measure the diversity at Autodesk compared to the global diversity numbers that a lot of companies and industries are trying to go after.

So maybe it’s not in a measurable thing. But if your CEO is saying that’s not good enough, then that’s a measurement bar that everybody is kind of trying to live up to.


Zaledonis: So a lot of our listeners are sales leaders themselves. They’re probably thinking about what they can do in their own organization. So can you give us some helpful tips about what you’re doing in Autodesk and what people who are looking to have a more diverse team feel like they should be doing?


Sokley: Yeah. We’ve got a couple things. One of the things we do is — it’s really not over-engineered. We call them think tanks. And it’s an opportunity to pull in a diverse group when we’re trying to solve a problem for sales.

And this can be done within a sales leader’s own organization or — what I’ve found here at Autodesk, they get more out of that is if they pull people outside of their sales organization in there.

And that could include not just things like finance or sales ops or, you know, things like that or products but also other sales organizations that are trying to solve it — maybe even another [geo] — a different way.

So we’ll pull these groups together. We call them think tanks. And we just talk about some of the challenges that sales is facing. And people often find that, by doing that, they get a different point of view.

And it shows them that that group [that] thinks outside their own, you know, back door can actually lead to better results. So it’s one thing that we do. Another thing that we do is to pull together a lot of talks across our organization in not even necessarily solving a problem but a point of passion.

Another idea of something that we actively do and we have our sales leaders do with their teams to better understand the makeup of their organization is we do use a Myers-Briggs review.

And so, you know, whatever your Myers-Briggs is, understanding what other people’s Myers-Briggs are really helps you to interact with them in a more effective manner. What it really does for sales leaders is see where your gaps are.

So if you’ve got a whole team that has zero feeling in it, you know, common sense says you might want to try to look for somebody that can balance that out in your team going forward.

And so that’s just a conscious way of looking for some of those people that could assist in making your team more high performing. So we actually do that pretty actively with our sales teams. They like to do that exercise.

What’s interesting now is some of our teams have started to do that with customers. And customers are kind of fascinated with it also because it’s a little bit of science.

And it’s fun to kind of have those conversations with a salesperson and a customer that has nothing to do with our product. So they’re kind of sharing what they’re finding on their own teams. And that brings in a whole new conversation for the customer.

And I just met with a couple customers a few weeks ago who had had that conversation with their rep. And they, in turn, called me and asked me if we could use one of our trainers to come in and do their leadership team meeting and understand better how they perform as a team and establish shareholder value because it was a block for them as well.

So you know, a couple things like that are great ways to go and really look at your team dynamic and see how you can make it better.


Zaledonis: Love the idea of taking this diversity outside the sales team to your whole company, then to your customers. I know, when I was in sales, I always strived to be the trusted advisor. And this sort of takes that to a whole new level when you’re investing in their company success outside of just trying to sell them a product.


Sokley: It really does. A lot of companies have obviously migrated from, you know, sell a product to sell a lifetime value relationship with the customer. And if you don’t really understand, you know, that customer at a deeper, more personal level, you won’t be able to, you know, drive that customer lifetime value. So it’s really important.


Micalizzi: I want to flip the perspective here and take a look at the sales practitioners. So you know, if I’m working in a very homogenous environment and I want to encourage change in my organization, what would you recommend?


Sokley: Well, first of all, I think you just have to be brave. You have to know yourself and your strengths. We’re a very strengths-based organization here. And I really believe, if you know how to use your strengths and know how to use your words, you can help do that because people will listen to people that have a point of view.

And you know, if you’re not in an organization that has that respect level for that point of view, then that does obviously make it harder. But I think you can also go find people that can be sponsors of that point of view. It’s not necessarily even a mentor.

I think you go look for sponsorship in your organization at the highest levels. And there’s not a lot of senior leadership staff today that aren’t aware of this diversity and unconscious bias, you know, active participation that their companies should be having.

And so I think it is, if you have that and you feel strong about it, you go find somebody that can help sponsor that change within your organization. It also, if anything, enables you to open up your own network within the organization.

But sitting back and just letting it stay status quo is not going to make the changes that every company needs to make.


Zaledonis: Well, we’re almost at time, Julie. So what closing thoughts would you like to leave listeners with?


Sokley: I’d probably just say that I think, if we look at ourselves and we look at our companies, we can all be aware of this issue. But the road won’t pave itself. And we have to constantly stay aware, be educated, hold our teams accountable, reward the people that are doing the right things and drive that support from the top of why that’s important for your company, your teams, and your own individuals.


Zaledonis: Love it. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. This has been a really interesting topic today and also one that I think hits home on a personal level for a lot of us as well too. So thanks for sharing.


Micalizzi: Definitely. Thank you, Julie. I really appreciate it. And for those of you listening in, there is a great trailhead module from Salesforce on diversity. I’ll include that link for you in the show notes for this episode. So Julie, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about this incredibly interesting and relevant topic.


Sokley: You’re very welcome. I was happy to do it.


Micalizzi: And Lynne, thank you so much for joining me to host today.


Zaledonis: Sure. My pleasure.


Sokley: Thanks, Lynne.


Zaledonis: Thank you, Julie.


Micalizzi: And to everyone listening in, like what you hear? Please take a minute to give us a five-star rating. And don’t forget to share this podcast with your friends, your peers, your customers, your prospects. You can find it at Quotable.com/podcast. Thank you.

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